Why you should care
Having been around for hundreds of years, the wallet is more than a symbol of modern life. But will anyone really miss it?
The things we use each day to buy other things are not even actual things themselves. Sure, they have an extension in space, color, resistance. You name it. But they remain foreign bodies in the realm of objects, which we usually divide into things we need and stuff we desire, tools and fetishes.
No one collects money, leave aside Scrooge McDuck, some gangsta rappers and a few eccentric numismatics at the flea market. The copper coins and crumpled bank notes that make our wallets full and heavy are neither beautiful nor useful. We carry them to spend them. There is almost nothing that cannot be bought with money, but its practical value is zero.
It remains a worthless piece of plastic whose only function very tellingly lies in chopping up lines of cocaine.
The same goes for the credit card: You can color it gold or platinum, but it remains a worthless piece of plastic whose only function very tellingly lies in chopping up lines of cocaine. And here comes the crumpled bill again! There is no Wall Street movie without a cocaine scene, and maybe that’s just to show that physical money is an ontological outcast: Abusing it on public toilets, the finance people try to fit their highly abstract object back into the tangible connection of means and ends that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as stuff.
The character of money remains a mystery to us, although we almost always have some in our pockets as if the world would suddenly stop turning were it no longer there. (This is a real experience for every bankrupt person.) At most, one can compare money to art or garbage, those strange classes of objects whose value explicitly lies in having no explicit value. The closer you look at money, the more it seems to be a nuisance rather than the lubricant economists like to talk about. It turns the act of payment into an awkward ceremony, worthy of descriptions by ethnologists, even if there are no shells involved.
The credit card made consumption easier by saving the customer from symbolically remodeling the price with notes and coins. In return, the debt of the American middle class was reflected in the multiplication of credit cards, which — often maxed out — piled up in wallets and mocked the utopia of cash-free payment. Even the process of authorization with signature or ID lends the payment process a humiliating touch. Its duration and taciturnity are reminiscent of passport controls, even if there’s only a paper bag with welted shoes on the sales counter, waiting to be carried out of the luxury store. The desire to get rid of money, or to at least to make it imperceptible, is not new. Even back when the first credit cards were issued in America after the Second World War, newspapers printed the headline “The end of cash.” The new technology reinvented the ancient principle of chalking up, which had enabled indebted dukes and absinthe-guzzling painters to participate in societal life, for the anonymous mass markets in capitalism.
When Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, postmodernism was hitting Western universities.
No company has understood the connection between technology and the soul as well as Apple. When CEO Tim Cook began talking about Apple Pay at the keynote in Cupertino, California, he first of all showed a picture of a worn-out wallet, packed with dollar notes and cards. He later played a film that — sometimes using split screen — shows the act of payment by credit card, the cashier’s scrutinizing glance, the customer’s impatient and fearful look. Both are symbols of a guilty conscience: They demonstrate the complex life of money, its recalcitrance, its unpleasant being, which is reminding us of something we don’t like to be reminded of.
“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” This statement from Friedrich Nietzsche also applies to methods of payment, perhaps even more so, even if payment itself is the most thoughtless action of all. The first coin was minted when Greek philosophy invented thinking in terms. Philosophical speculation emerged with the paper money of the early modern age. When President Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, postmodernism was hitting Western universities.
What does it mean when the payment process is no longer embodied in a particular object? When it instead dissolves into a communication device, as Nietzsche would say: into a writing tool? The iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, which can be used in America for payment with a single fingerprint starting this fall, are just the beginning. It is foreseeable that payment will soon cease to be an action at all, that it will take place invisibly while we are drinking, eating, buying, traveling. This is not the end of money. It will live on as a number on a server, a mystery. But we will no longer be able to touch it.
Andreas Rosenfelder writes for the German newspaper Die Welt.